By Jim Turner ©2022 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In just under 13 minutes, the Florida Senate on Tuesday discussed and unanimously approved two bills that call for spending $1.25 billion on such things as assisting homeowners ravaged by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole and giving discounts to toll-road drivers.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, expressed concern that a bill (SB 6-A) to provide $500 million in tax dollars to cover lost revenue from providing credits to frequent toll-road users will benefit “maybe” 500,000 people.
“I wish we had also looked at the idea of just lowering tolls throughout the state for the benefit of everyone,” Berman said. “But I will support the bill today. But I think it’s an idea that we should consider if we find ourselves in a position where we are so lucky to have an extra half a billion dollars to be able to use.”
The other bill (SB 4-A) calls for spending $751 million, including providing property-tax refunds for homes that sustained major damage in Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole. Sponsor Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, vowed lawmakers in 2023 will consider further relief for areas outside of the counties that sustained the heaviest hurricane damage.
“If your local government is not in this bill today. There is still plenty of time later,” Hutson said. “Today is about triage and stabilization.”
The Senate votes came on the second day of a special legislative session that focuses heavily on issues in the property-insurance system.
The House is expected Wednesday to approve bills (HB 3A and HB 5A) aimed at helping hurricane victims and providing toll credits. Those bills are identical to the Senate versions.
Under Hutson’s bill, property-tax refunds would be available for homes that were left uninhabitable for at least 30 days after Ian and Nicole. Ian made landfall Sept. 28 in Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm, while Nicole made landfall Nov. 10 near Vero Beach as a Category 1 storm.
In October, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for the tax break to be timed so residents who sustained damage in Ian can benefit from an earlier-approved tax change that will take effect Jan. 1.
Crafted as part of the response to last year’s fatal condominium collapse in Surfside, that tax change creates rebates when residential properties are rendered uninhabitable for 30 days or more by catastrophic events.
The property-tax refunds proposed in the new bill likely would most affect Lee County, where Ian made initial landfall. In addition, the bill includes such steps as delaying tax deadlines for property destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the hurricanes and designating $350 million so the state Division of Emergency Management can provide a full match for Federal Emergency Management Agency public-assistance grants to local governments affected by the two hurricanes.
Another $150 million would go to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. Of that amount, $60 million would go to local governments to help storm-impacted residents with housing repairs and relocation costs and $90 million would go for a rental-recovery loan program.
Among other things, the bill would designate $100 million for beach-erosion projects, without the need for a local match from governments in Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Duval, Flagler, Indian River, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Nassau, Palm Beach, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sarasota and Volusia counties.
The measure also would create a direct-support organization within the Division of Emergency Management for disaster response, recovery and relief efforts.
The toll bill would expand on a current six-month program that DeSantis put in place. That program offers a 20 percent to 25 percent discount to SunPass and other Florida transponder accounts that surpass 40 toll transactions a month.
Senate Transportation Chairman Nick DiCeglie, an Indian Rocks Beach Republican who is sponsoring the measure, said Tuesday he couldn’t give an estimate on the number of motorists who could benefit from the credits.
Under the bill, a discount of 50 percent would be in effect for a full year starting Jan. 1. The discount would be offered to motorists who record 35 or more transactions a month.